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On Easter Sunday, I landed in New Orleans to sweat and drop by the set of RED, yet another comic book adaptation, but one packing the following A-list cast:

Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren (as a tea-sipping sniper with a 50-cal machine gun), Mary-Louise Parker, Star Trek’s Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Nip/Tuck‘s Julian McMahon, and Ernest Borgnine

And I would be remiss not to list the movie’s possible scene hog: a stuffed toy pig with wild eyes toted around by Malkovich’s character…a paranoiac-genius. Shocked? The movie, due in October, is loosely based on a very lean 2003 WildStorm comic book series by Warren Ellis and artist Cully Hammer, whom we spoke with on set. Willis stars as a retired assassin named Frank Moses, a hermetic, once-valuable man now wanted dead by pesky/shady forces. Naturally, Moses seeks defense and camaraderie from a badass crew of vets (Malkovich, Mirren, and Freeman). The film, described as “hard PG-13,” is directed by Robert Schwentke, best known for the Fincher-aping Flightplan.

RED is an acronym for Retired Extremely Dangerous, and the ensemble aspect means the end product should comfortably fit into the current action zeitgeist of grizzled, last hurrah actioners (The Expendables) and specialized, quick-quip posses (The A-Team). However, on set producers compared the tone not to other genre properties but to Ocean’s Eleven with a splash of True Lies. Ellis and Hammer have both publicly endorsed the decision to forgo their comic book’s bloody, quasi-polemic seriousness in addition to much of the storyline (wherein Moses was a lone wolf). After the jump are thoughts from producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura (Transformers, Constantine), and my own observations (excluding a strip club excursion later that night with various web editors). Look for interviews with several cast members, including an expletive-liberated Willis in top form, closer to release.

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/Film’s Sights and Impressions from the Red Set

A van took me from a hotel in the French Quarter several miles away to an expanse of tarmac stacked with monochrome shipping freights (the better to snipe someone from). Several single-monitor production tents offered makeshift protection from the sun, and two very tall bright orange and blue cranes broke the skyline. Several interviews were interrupted by the sudden *ratatat* of M4 machine gun squibs.

Later that day, Willis feigned confusion over the source: was it coming from the set or courtesy of New Orleans? (Btw: I had not returned to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. No sensationalism needed. In the first two hours after checking in—tourist central—I saw a car almost get jacked off Bourbon by a crust punk with a dog, was offered crack, and an apple bong at a decent bar on Decatur called The Abbey.)

The main scene being filmed during the visit was a bullet dodging action sequence featuring Willis (nicely clad in a leather blazer, brandishing a hand cannon), Parker (scurred damsel mode),  and Malkovich (clad in baggy military pants, hair grown out crazy-style, holding a gun and pink pig). Willis fires and the trio takes shelter behind two shipping freights. Willis is referred to off-screen by his would-be coffin filler as an “old man.” Malkovich raises an eyebrow and bounces the comment back to Willis from behind a parallel freight.

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Any action-fluent moviegoer can accurately imagine the banter—tangible Hollywood stuff—but the scene’s energy is good. One observation might be that Willis breaks out of his auto-pilot Joe Action role when surrounded by a high profile cast. (Seriously, after Pulp Fiction, it’s odd he hasn’t starred in more ensemble-type flicks.)

At the end of one take, the ivory-skinned Parker walks away, head down, gently pulling at the ends of her long hair. She doesn’t dig the heat, and confirms as much later. After watching her in Weeds on through the last season, I had to wonder how submissive her character is. Shouldn’t she at least be carrying a large knife? The quick pace and banter of the scenes on hand didn’t allow for gleans of romantic chemistry between Willis and Parker—it’s this relationship that evidently puts the movie’s hijinks in motion.

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Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura on Red, working with Summit Entertainment, and Transformers 3

The base/refuge of the visit is a sizable white tent, with coolers of Gatorade and a complementary can of West Nile Off. The day’s first interview was with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who is partially responsible for Michael Bay’s Transformers party, and overseeing the next installment, which finds Red‘s John Malkovich paired with Shia LaBeouf. Bonaventura is affable in person—no signs of greed and probably no photo of a yacht in his wallet—and wearing khakis, a tan-colored plaid shirt, and a new L.A. Dodgers cap over wing-tipped hair. I wonder mid-chat if he views sports as more sacred than cinema. Here’s his take on RED

How the cast came together

“It reminds me of the first Ocean’s Eleven when we put it together where you wrote a nice high script and then George [Clooney] commits and then so and so commits and then so and so commits and it just becomes a different animal. And this one did that. It started with Bruce obviously and I think Morgan was in second and then Helen Mirren and then people start hearing that all these actors are jumping in. So then we started getting incoming calls. Usually you’re out there trying to shake the trees and get them to beg them in any way or form to read your script and come on board, you know? And this time it was the exact opposite as it just kept going. And so what’s happened is it’s become much…its evolution has been a really interesting one to follow and it’s been interesting to talk to Warren [Ellis] about it too because he’s been onboard for it and he recognizes how far it’s gone from the original, and also appreciates where it’s gone—which is nice to keep the original creator onboard as it takes on a new life.”

On Mary-Louise Parker’s love interest character

“Frank [Willis] is retired from the CIA and we don’t really know what he is but we know he has this phone relationship with this girl over his pension checks. And it’s clear they kind of like each other and they have this kind of fun sort of banter and then this is the opening of the movie. And it’ll give you a sense of the tone, but it’s very quiet and it seems like he’s sort of an average guy and he goes to bed and suddenly gets up in the middle of the night and he’s going to the bathroom and shadows are passing down the hallway and three commandos attack him. And he takes them out and he realizes they’ve come after him and then he gets ready to leave and another three come. So he takes out six guys in an action sequence.

“He goes to the girl’s house. She walks into her apartment. He’s sitting in her apartment. She’s like, ‘Who are you? Get the hell out of here!’ They’ve never met. And he says, ‘Listen they’re going to come here and kill you. You’ve got to come with me.’ And she’s like, ‘Why do I attract all the crazy people?’”

On Bruce Willis’s character and the film’s theme of disenfranchisement

“He starts as a guy who’s not uncomfortable with retirement. And one of the things that we’re…there’s an underlying idea in this movie that we have all related to which is…and we’ve coined the term for ‘RED’—Retired Extremely Dangerous. Have you guys heard that? And the notion of our society the way we just cast off people, you know whether it’s old or whether it’s dead-end jobs or all the sort of notions of how difficult our society can be on people—this movie sort of has that underlying notion behind it—the empowerment of all those people who are sort of getting left behind, you know?

On Helen Mirren’s sniper

“Yeah, [Helen Mirren] went through weapon training, yeah, yeah. And she had a ball.”

Helen Mirren is a phenomenal wet works sniper. And she runs a B&B and that’s what she does. And when you meet her she’s like serving tea and making flower arrangements and you’re like who’s this lady? What the hell is going on? The next thing you know she’s firing a 50 caliber machine gun, you know?”

“What’s interesting was we didn’t know it at the time, but one of the things when she came aboard is she said…I said to her, what was particularly attractive about [the movie]? She said, ‘Well,  first of all what a great role, but I’ve always wanted to be in a Bruce Willis movie.’ I was like really? And she goes, ‘Yeah he’s a very underappreciated actor.”‘She said, ‘You know he’s really more of a character actor than a movie star and I always thought it would be really fun to be in one of his movies.’ And Victoria, the character, is a load of fun. You literally meet her in this quaint bed-and-breakfast and the next thing you know she’s…first she’s shooting a sniper rifle, and then later on she’s behind a 50-caliber machine gun shooting at…tearing up an underground garage. Like thousands of rounds. I mean it’s really…we pushed that one as much as we could.”

On the team Willis assembles

“So, you know, for instance Brian Cox plays a Russian who’s an arch enemy of Frank’s, who Frank comes to for help. He brings a very different energy, you know? One of the things that’s really fun is there’s a line that Morgan says that says, ‘Isn’t this fun bringing the band back together?’ And it’s sort of that. We do want different notes from everybody. I don’t think we’re that calculated or could be that calculated where we know exactly what the note should be.

“We know that Marvin as a character—the Malkovich character—is one of the wilder characters he’s played. What’s fun about Marvin for instance is everybody thinks Marvin’s crazy or just a complete lunatic and every time Marvin’s right. So everybody goes, what’s he saying? And then he’ll be like, see that helicopter up there? They’re watching us. And everybody’s saying, ‘Marvin come on.’ And of course the helicopter was watching them. So each guy and each character has a very distinct thing. Brian Cox and Helen Mirren…Helen Mirren tells a funny story where she once fell in love with somebody and then the agency said you’re too close to that guy. You’ve got to take him out. And she said this to…she’s explaining love to Mary-Louise Parker and Mary-Louise Parker says, ‘So what did you do?’ She goes, ‘I put three bullets in his chest.’ And then later on you discover it’s Brian Cox and that was her way to save him. She didn’t shoot him in the head. So it’s that kind of arithmetic that’s going on there.”

On the scope

“We filmed in two places: Toronto and New Orleans. And we were looking to find…finance always takes part of this decision, you know? You needed a place that we could actually afford to make this movie and this movie has something that’s a travelogue really. It starts in Cleveland, goes to Kansas City…I always get this sequence wrong…Mobile, New Orleans, New York City, Washington D.C., upper state New York, Chicago. I’m probably missing something in there.”

On the scene being filmed during the visit

“This scene here….in the movie one of the pieces of information they’ve uncovered is a list of which Frank is on. It’s a hit list. And they’re trying to discover what the meaning of it is—why he’s on it, where it comes from. And Frank and Marvin actually are two of the people on it. In fact I’ll tell you again to give you a sense of the tone: they’ve got this list and you realize that a lot of people are dead on the list and they’ve come to New Orleans to find [a guy]. Anyhow, James Remar plays one of the guys on the list and so they’ve come here to find…try to figure out what the hell is on this list. What do they all have in common?

“Marvin and Frank are both on it and six or seven of the people are dead on it. This is one of the last people alive other than our two guys. And they’re looking for….they try to find him and they find him and all hell breaks loose here. The bad guys find them. They realize what they’re doing. And this is an action sequence.

“You will see Malkovich carrying around a pink pig. It’s one of the props we have in this movie. It’s one of the gags we have in the movie—when Frank comes to him he says, ‘Okay, I’ve got to bring the pig.’ And he carries this pig around with him. It’s a big stuffed pig for quite awhile and here’s where you’ll discover what’s inside the pig. And Frank has been telling…excuse me Marvin—Malkovich’s character—is telling Frank that they’re watching us, they’re watching us. And this is the scene where of course he was right. And we have helicopters, RPG’s, machine guns, the whole work here.”

On a possible sequel

“You know…no I mean, look the movie certainly has an ending that would allow it. I think the audience is going to have to vote on that one, you know? We’re not going to write a sequel script or anything like that. This one is, can we make this sort of older cast play to a really broad audience? That was really sort of the challenge to this. And I think that will be the determination as to whether there’s a sequel or not, you know? Will young guys think this is an interesting enough movie to go to?”

On working with Summit Entertainment

“I must say, it’s been one of the more fun experiences I had in a long time because I know Rob Freedman for a long time, from my Warner days, so we’re old, old colleagues but they really believe that we’re in charge of our movie, which is somewhat unique in our business right now.”

“…we’ve actually gotten more time to spend on whether we’re doing it creatively right or wrong than on most movies because we have not had to spend a lot of time explaining ourselves, getting approvals for this, dah-dah-dah-dah. …It’s very liberating, actually.”

Is Transformers 3 commissioned by Satan?

“You know we don’t talk a lot about that script, but [John Malkovich is] going to have a lot of interaction with Shia in that movie. And he’s got a really fun character. And he’s going to bring a really interesting spin to that franchise so it’s going to be great. Yeah.”

For the font fetishists, below is the official art for RED, released today…

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Hunter Stephenson can be followed on Twitter.

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